“American Realities”: Joakim Eskildsen Documents Poverty in the Land of Opportunity

This blog runs in association with eLucidAction.

Impressed by his book The Roma Journeys (2007), Kira Pollack—director of photography at Time magazine—commissioned Danish photographer Joakim Eskildsen to capture poor communities in America, specifically in the states of New York, California, Louisiana, South Dakota and Georgia, over a period of seven months in 2011. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46 million Americans live below the poverty line, that’s the highest number since they started publishing poverty figures more than five decades ago. And some economists and experts predict that the number is rising.

Accompanied by journalist Natasha del Toro, Joakim collected hundreds of photos and personal stories of people struggling to make ends meet—the unemployed, the homeless, disabled veterans, the mentally ill, immigrants, single mothers, Native Americans, drug addicts, prostitutes, people who’d lost everything during natural disasters. An interesting historical and artistic resource, the project was released as a book titled American Realities in 2016 by German publisher Steidl.

 

Joakim Eskildsen

 

American Realities (2016, Steidl)

Almost all people who were asked to be photographed—either persons whom the team had met in the street or who were recommended by a helping organisation—reacted positively, and were relieved at the interest in their life as they felt they had not been listened to. Many were of the opinion that the system had failed them, and were pleased to be able to tell their story. They hoped their voice maybe could open the eyes of the politicians.

The photographer says of the type of poverty that he encountered: “This face of the US is not what you are usually exposed to, and it conflicts deeply with the concept of the American Dream that American culture is so obsessed with. Also, poverty in the US does not look like Third World poverty, and does not necessarily mean having no possessions or being starving.

“The kind of poverty that so many people in the US face is one of poor food, poor health, poor culture, poor living circumstances, but it is not necessarily that easy to spot. You can have a family with a huge TV, air conditioner, a microwave, but no money for food. All they own is borrowed and any small incident, the lack of health insurance, can collapse it all. There is an idea that everyone needs certain material goods, and people will choose those over healthy food. Infrastructure is poor in poor areas and it is extremely difficult to get hold of naturally good food. Too many people virtually live on poor quality fast food, and face consequences health-wise. Poverty hits you on all levels instantly, and it is a vicious circle.”

Joakim found the stories and the atmosphere very depressing. “Almost everyone we talked to or interviewed cried at some point,” he writes. “It was in many ways very hard to face all this. I had the feeling anybody could fall into such hardship.” Despite the grim and sad themes, the photographs remain beautiful, warm in tone, radiating with the humanity of the subjects.

Born in Copenhagen in 1971, Joakim trained with the Royal Court photographer Rigmor Mydtskov. In 1994, he moved to Finland to learn the craft of photographic bookmaking at the University of Art and Design in Helsinki, graduating with an MA degree in photography in 1998. In addition to the books on gypsies and poverty in America, he has published “Nordic Signs” (1995), “Bluetide” (1997), “iChickenMoon” (1999), which was awarded Best Foreign Title of 2000 in the Photo-Eye Books & Prints Annual Awards, and the portfolio “al-Madina” (2002), which was made in collaboration with Kristoffer Albrecht and Pentti Sammallahti.

Links: Websites (www.joakimeskildsen.comamericanrealities.org)

Images used with permission.

 

Jasmine and Derrick Amoateng, a pair of first-generation siblings from Ghana, sit in a Hispanic bakery in the South Bronx. Historically with a large population of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans, the South Bronx has in recent years seen an influx of immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria and Mali, and the population of residents born in Africa has seen a five-fold increase since 1990. Mixing with Hispanics and other ethnic groups, they have had a significant impact on the local culture, opening African restaurants and shops, as well as holding soccer tournaments.

 

Aleena Arnesen and her cousin Elizabeth live on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. Aleena’s father is a commercial fisherman, bringing in the freshly caught shrimp Aleena would often eat for dinner. Since the BP oil spill in 2010, the fishermen are catching half of what they used to, and Aleena’s mother Kindra is scared to feed the children seafood. “The federal government says it is fine,” she says, “yet my husband is catching fish with black goo on them.” Kindra, who was one of the clean-up workers after the BP oil spill, thinks the government has procrastinated passing legislation to prevent another spill from happening. The spill has raised concerns over environmental safety and health, and ruined the livelihood of many families. The Arnesens have put their home up for sale and are thinking of moving to a fishing community in North Carolina.

 

3-year old Eli Stockstill and his brother DJ often stay on their grandparents’ shrimp boat that sits in a lot out of the water for maintenance. Darla and Todd Rooks, longtime Louisiana fishermen, moved into the 40-square foot cabin of their boat after the BP oil spill, because they were not sure they would be able to continue paying their lease. Before the BP oil spill, they used to make good living, eating healthy food from the sea. Now, the fresh seafood has been replaced by canned food, and they have developed a host of health problems, from muscle spasms to skin rashes and memory loss. Even the puddles in which the boys used to play seem dangerous to Darla who fears the water is contaminated. The Rooks long to going back to their old ways. “I do not want to be the face of poverty,” Darla says. “I do not want to live on food stamps – I just want to fish.”

 

Kelly Mitchell and Ronald Major wait for free food handed out by a group of volunteers on weekends under the Claiborne Avenue Bridge. The number of homeless in New Orleans has more than doubled since Hurricane Katrina, which is not only due to the lack of affordable housing, but also to family safety nets having disintegrated. On top of this, nearly 80 percent of the homeless suffer from disabilities, which is also about double the national rate. Major has a heavy limb and pushes a wheelchair. Since he lost his home in the Hurricane, he lives under a bridge, and tries to keep hope alive as he says.

 

Seventeen-year-old Kate Three Legs was at a pregnancy check-up when a fire broke out due to a poorly-installed electrical system, and her family’s trailer burnt down. The trailer, though condemned and with windows all boarded up, was everything the family owned. Except a family photo album Kate finds in the rubble, the family’s belongings have been destroyed. Kate lived here with her mother, her sister, and her two children. It is not the first time this happens to Kate’s family. A few years earlier, her sister lost two children in a similar trailer fire. The Federal Emergency Management Agency ( FEMA) sells condemned trailers to Native Americans in an attempt to solve the housing shortage on the reservation. Since the latest incident, the Tribal Housing Authority has relocated Adell’s family to another FEMA trailer.

 

Mike Shaving and Mike Jewett have just participated in a traditional sweat lodge ceremony, a purification ritual in which they pray to the Native American gods and chant inside a dark, steaming-hot teepee. The ritual was illegal in the United States until 1978, but for Shaving who works for a program that helps low-income families on the reservation in South Dakota, the practice has helped overcome an alcohol addiction. Jewett who is self-employed and suffering from debilitating back pain, says the ceremony helps him stay mentally focused. “If you concentrate on your prayer, you do not feel anything,” he says. “You think with your heart, not with your mind.”

 

Darlene Rosas lives on her own without any running water and barely any heat in a condemned trailer that is situated half a mile off the road. The grassy hill around it is littered with broken lawnmowers, used mattresses and rusty automobiles. With the nearest town 40 minutes away, Rosas has to rely on neighbors for food and water when her old Chevrolet breaks down. She receives a disability check of about $800 a month that she uses to support her unemployed son and her daughter who suffers from kidney failure. Rosas says that living on the reservation is a Catch-22. “If you have a job, you lose benefits. If you live on welfare, you become a victim of the system.”

 

Spirit Grass, daughter of a Lakota family, dreams of playing basketball at the University of Southern California, which could potentially be her ticket off the Indian reservation where her family scrape by on $3,500 a year. Her mother, Mary Grass, is a military veteran and an unemployed medical technician, her father works part-time in Eagle Butte, but since it is forty miles away, transportation costs eat up most of their income.

 

James Kinley and his wife Diane live in a small but impeccably kept trailer home. After 37 years of working at a local industry, James started having heart problems that eventually forced him to get a pacemaker and quit his job. His longtime insurance company did not honor his claim for disability and is forcing him to pay back the money he received when he left his job. Now that he turned 65, he finally qualifies for the government’s health insurance for the elderly. The Kinleys have taught their children how to produce their own food through gardening and cultivating honeybees. Their do-it yourself attitude has helped them get by in tough times. They fear that if Diane’s health were also to decline, rising medical bills would make it impossible for them to keep their home.

 

Ruby Ann Smith lives under the North Avenue Bridge where it crosses the North Oconee River in Athens, Georgia. She shares the space with other homeless people who have made an outdoor encampment. A prostitute and a drug addict, Ruby Ann has been beaten, shot, and sexually assaulted. “I am so lucky I am still alive”, says Smith, half smiling, half crying, “I should have been dead ten times by now.”

 

Security guards Michael Veldstra and Donald Royth Singh stand watch at a low-income housing complex in Fresno riddled with drugs, gangs and violence. Singh was raised in a rough neighborhood with a single mom who worked two jobs. “I still believe in the American Dream,” he says, “it is what keeps people going, motivated… especially in a place like this.” To him, education is the key to moving up the economic ladder and he says he would like the situation in Fresno to improve, so nobody would grow up in such conditions again. Veldstra, on the other hand, says he wants to leave the city the first chance he gets.

 

Felicia and her daughter Ermaline Ogbodo have just returned home from a Sunday church service. Her daughter Ermaline is a top student and has been accepted into college on a scholarship, but fears she will not be able to afford the education anyway because her mother Felicia has lost her job as a social worker with foster children. State budget cuts have forced Fresno County to downsize group homes or shut down programs for foster children, so Ogbodo has been living on unemployment benefits since January 2011. “It’s shocking and embarrassing, because I never thought that with a master’s degree, I would be unemployed,” she says. She filed for bankruptcy to wipe out her credit card debt, an experience she calls “humbling,” and has been considering moving in with her ex-husband or a roommate to save on bills. Before losing her job, Ogbodo had a decent yearly salary of $45,000, but is now running out of money. In addition to downsizing, she plans on selling her furniture and other items she has in storage.

 

Madai Nunez and her 8-year-old neighbor Amy live in a migrant worker motel in downtown Fresno, California. During the day, Amy and her friends play in the parking lot where Madai Nunez is keeping an eye on the children while their parents work in the fields for $8 an hour. At night, the mood at the motel changes when the men, after a long day of physical labor, start drinking to unwind. Fights are common, and at times, prostitutes come knocking on doors looking for business, sometimes with their babies in tow.

 

Javier Hernandez and Albino Lopez have been working as farm laborers in California’s Central Valley since they emigrated from Mexico forty years ago. It is a grueling routine they have grown used to; they are picked up at 5am by a truck that transports them to fields where they pick fruits, vegetables, and cotton for eight hours a day with few breaks. Heat strokes are common. At the end of the shift, they return to overcrowded trailers together with other migrant workers. When possible, they send a portion of their minimum-wage earnings to their families back in Mexico. That day we met them, the labor contractor had sent them home from the fields for the second day in a row with no explanation and no pay. Javier and Albino said they could not afford not to work. When the farming season ends in the winter, they head to Alaska to work in the fisheries, as they do every year.

 

Eric Ramirez lives in a dusty trailer park for migrant farm workers in Firebaugh, California, where he shares a narrow trailer with his two siblings and his grandparents. According to the U.S. Census, 36 percent of children in Fresno County, where Firebaugh is located, are poor, and 43 percent of children in Firebaugh live below the poverty line. The area is one of the most fertile in the country and the Ramirez family work in the fields picking fruits and vegetables. Still, Eric has to walk more than two miles with his grandmother to a community center where they wait in line for hours to receive free food.

 

Empty mailboxes of migrant workers in Mendota; California. One of them belongs to the house of Marco Belloso; a 31-year old from El Salvador; who lives with four other farm laborers. Belloso works in the field nine hours a day; seven days a week; picking tomatoes and onions and clearing weeds; leaving his hands calloused and cracked. He sends a portion of his minimum-wage earnings to his wife and children in El Salvador so they can buy shoes and other necessities. However; he often feels depressed. “I’m so far away; ” said Belloso, “being here is practically like being in prison, only going directly from home to work and back home again.” His housemate Pedro Miranda, who also works in the field, had just received news that two of his brothers were shot and killed at a coffee shop back home. Because of his financial and immigrant status, he was not able to return to bury his brothers. And he still owes $1500 to the coyote that brought him to the United States.”

 

Pop music blares from loud speakers while people are waiting in line for a free meal at the Poverello House; a non-profit organization that has been serving the hungry and homeless since 1973. Billions of dollars cut from the state’s health and social services budget are expected to have drastic effects on fragile groups like the elderly and the disabled; who are increasingly living on the streets and relying on food pantries. “You can go to the Salvation Army; the Catholic Charities… you’ve got a whole rotation. That’s how the seniors in this town get by; said a 61-year-old veteran who lives in a van next to Poverello.

 

3-year old Eli Stockstill and his brother DJ often stay on their grandparents’ shrimp boat that sits in a lot out of the water for maintenance. Darla and Todd Rooks, longtime Louisiana fishermen, moved into the 40-square foot cabin of their boat after the BP oil spill, because they were not sure they would be able to continue paying their lease. Before the BP oil spill, they used to make good living, eating healthy food from the sea. Now, the fresh seafood has been replaced by canned food, and they have developed a host of health problems, from muscle spasms to skin rashes and memory loss. Even the puddles in which the boys used to play seem dangerous to Darla who fears the water is contaminated. The Rooks long to going back to their old ways. “I do not want to be the face of poverty,” Darla says. “I do not want to live on food stamps – I just want to fish.”


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